How to Become a Culinary Chef

The restaurant industry in the U.S. is worth $683.4 billion. Why? Because good food is more than just that, it can be an art, an experience, a pass-time, and has always been an important part of our culture. This is where culinary chefs come in; they are the ones who create, innovate, and of course, cook amazing foods. Their job does not only consist of food preparation, they also set menus, research new flavors, experiment with different cuisines and fusions, and must be business-savvy to know what a client will want and need.

Being a chef is a demanding job. Whether you choose to focus on one type of cooking, say pastries or meats, aspire to become an executive chef, or dream of opening your own restaurant, the industry is competitive, has a lot of talent, requires ambition and passion, and well, long hours.

Having said this, it’s also an amazing career path to choose if you love food and have a talent for cooking. There are many cuisines you can pick as your focus, or you can experiment with something new, such as molecular gastronomy. If you don’t want to be the executive chef, the infographic below outlines some other options you can choose from, as well as industry stats.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Barbara Werner

Musical Pairing, LLC – Owner

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I have almost 10 years of experience in all different aspects of the culinary field. From a small restaurant, to culinary school, an industrial kitchen, teaching gourmet cooking for kids, to the publishing of my first culinary book this year, and the next is scheduled for release in January 2015.

I started working for a few years in a small Italian restaurant called Roma to start my culinary journey. My first job was to clean fish. That was it. I would take the shells off the shrimp, wash the clams, and remove the eyes and ink sacks from the fresh calamari for hours each day with my hands in cold water, and I loved it!

I decided that this was the industry for me, and in 1982, I received my culinary degree from SUNY Cobleskill. Shortly after graduation, I was hired as the Supervisor of Food Production for a NY Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in White Plains. After 2 years, I was working in the kitchens and found myself seriously ill. I started to get sick all the time. I couldn’t concentrate; I couldn’t keep any food down, and my hands shook with terrible spasms all the time. After one exceptionally hard bout I remembered that horrible sensation when I was a kid. I had severe food allergies, and after almost 14 years, they had returned. In 1996, the allergies disappeared again.

But it wasn’t until about 2 years ago, while eating alone at a very nice restaurant, wearing my headset (I tend to do that when dining alone) that I realized that certain music enhanced certain foods while other, very specific rhythms, tempo and melodies did not. Some combinations could even make your mouth water.

Right now, I hold down 2 jobs. By day, I work as the office manager for Bernstein Medical. I run the office from 7:00-3:00, but then –I am all about the food. I am constantly cooking, trying new things, experimenting with new combinations of food, beverage, and music because each one of my book looks at a different aspect of cooking. 90% of the time you will find me in a restaurant or food store with my headset firmly planted on my ears, talking to myself, deciphering the nuances of different flavor and music combinations.

I am extremely lucky because there is nothing that I dislike about either job. I get to keep my hand in food and cooking, share my love of writing and music, and still meet new people. You never have to limit yourself. The world is open, so why settle on just one career?

Advice

Never stop learning
You never know where your interests and education will lead you, so just keep learning. I am always in school or studying online. So far I have my culinary degree, earned my manicuring license, I am certified in reflexology, I have taken Sommelier classes, and have studied to become a beverage specialist. I’ve even taken some Master Classes at the International Culinary Center here in NYC, and they are magnificent.

Pick a school where you feel at home
I had applied to attend the Culinary Institute of America, but I was only 16 when I interviewed there. They told me I was too young and they would welcome me when I turned 18. I didn’t want to wait, so I kept looking. The minute I got out of the car at SUNY Cobleskill, I knew I was going to love it. And I did. That makes all the difference.

Take the time to hone your skills, practice and create
Cook at home, for friends, experiment, and have fun! For me, cooking, being a chef and now a food writer, it’s all about being creative; experimenting; exploring foods and beverages, even place settings; anything that could enhance the experience of dining. For others it’s the joy you get when serving something you made to others. Still others like the business aspect of food service. Whatever it is that strikes your passion in the culinary world – keep at it. Learn, experiment and don’t ever lose that joy that food can bring!

Kerry Dunnington

Kerry Dunnington Catering – Owner

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I studied fashion merchandise and design and graduated with a B.A. from Southern Virginia University. In the summer months and throughout college I worked and fell in love with the restaurant business. Later, I was general manager of the Tremont Hotel, a position that included overseeing all food and beverage outlets.

I was desirous of striking out on my own and being more directly connected with food, so I started a cottage-style catering business. An instant attraction was menu design; I enjoyed creating seasonal complementing menus specific to the time of year, type of event, and theme. I referred to the extraordinary dishes my mother prepared for family and friends and adopted her successful entertaining style.

I began penning my recipes and logged them into a recipe journal. One night after a dinner party all the women requested the recipes I prepared for the party. After I handed my cookbook journal over, they asked why I hadn’t written a cookbook. I loved the idea and spent the next few years writing my first cookbook.

When I’m catering, my day generally begins with a list of the food I’m going to prepare. Then the day long preparing and cooking begins. On the days when I’m not catering, I think about food combinations (think chemist and artist) and create recipes using the ingredients I hand select. Creations are tested by taste-testers, and when I receive a thumbs up, I write a recipe.

I love everything about the work I do as an author and caterer. As a cookbook author, my favorite is to design food combinations and turn them into recipes. The most rewarding part of catering is when it all comes together on the plate or the buffet table. I’m known for my unique presentation, it’s all about color, the food season, balance, texture and variety, so it’s fun to see this all in one place and how all the “pieces” fit together.

Advice

Talk to as many chefs as possible
Get their view about what it’s like to be in the food business. Read culinary trade magazines. If you’re interested, I recommend getting to know everything about the business and work your way up slowly, so that way you will be familiar with how it runs and will be able to see firsthand how it relates to the eventual position as chef. Look to the future and see what the trend will be in twenty or thirty years. Ask yourself if this is what you want.

Learn hands-on
Hands on experience is one of the best ways to educate oneself because it’s generally one-on-one and very specific. Initially I learned everything about food and cooking from my mother. Seeking a mentor is another great way to get an education in the culinary field. There are many famous and talented chefs in the world that are self-taught and many who mentored under extraordinary talent and then pursued an education. Of course, a formal education is a plus.

Start from the bottom
This is where a job in the restaurant or hotel business might help to get one’s foot in the door and get started toward a career as a culinary chef. Start out as a busboy or dishwasher or hostess; some of the most talented chefs worked their way up to line cook, then head chef. In every capacity you work, ask questions and try and get the most out of each position.

Stephanie Lamour

Chef Instructor at the Art Institute of California

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As a professor, I teach 4 and half hours a day, 5 days a week, plus 1 hour of office hours to do my grades, meet with students, etc. I love to be able to share what I have learned throughout the years. Teaching is very rewarding in so many ways. I wish I would have more time with the students. The classes are going very fast and that is what I don’t like about it.

Advice

Have perseverance
My advice to whoever is interested in becoming a culinary chef would be “Do not take NO for an answer”, “pursue your dream”, and “go for it”. Work hard, watch closely, and listen to your chef. Always say “yes chef”. Respect one another.

Get an education
I truly believe in education. Learn the techniques at school, then work hard in the industry to utilize the techniques and make your way up. I am very blessed to have had some of the best training in France. I use everything that I learned every single day. Never stop learning. I am still learning every single day.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Culinary Chef?


There are many paths you can take to become a career chef; however, there are three that are most popular. You can work you way up by starting out at the very bottom of the industry, say peeling potatoes at your local restaurant, move up to a line cook, a cook, a sous chef, and finally a chef. This will take some time and perseverance, but it’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of the industry and really know what every single person does. This is especially good if you do not have the funds to go to school and can be beneficial for future restaurant owners, since you’ll truly learn the ropes.

The next option is to become an apprentice to someone great. You will probably need to have some skills honed before you can do this, whether it’s through self-teaching or through classes, and then you will have to prove that you deserve being an apprentice. If you yourself want to be an amazing chef, then you must learn from someone who will be able to teach you just that. This can be a great path, since you will be able to pick up tips and tricks you won’t get anywhere else. It can also make a perfect combination with the first option: first try out all the entry-level positions, then find the chef that is the right teacher for you and learn from him or her.

Of course, the other option is to get a formal education. This can involve taking classes and workshops or completing a full-fledged degree at a university or college. There are many programs available for aspiring chefs. The benefit is that they will teach you the technical side of things, as well as business aspects of the food industry. You will still probably have to start as a cook, but you’ll have the tools to grow faster within the industry. If you are interested in a particular type of cooking or a cuisine, you may want to explore international schools and chefs. For example, if you want to specialize in Italian cuisine, then going to Italy and taking classes there or from a local chef, might just be the perfect choice for you.

There is a variety of choices when it comes to the paths you can take to become a culinary chef. It’s important to evaluate your options carefully and pick what is right for you, your learning style, budget, and aspirations.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN Culinary Arts?

  • Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts
    This college boasts 16 campuses across the US, two of the most famous located in Boston and in Austin. They offer associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas in the culinary arts, patisserie and baking, hospitality, and restaurant management, as well as classes for home cooks. Additionally, you can choose to take courses online. Sample tuition for an A.S. in Boston is $37,000.
  • Institute of Culinary Education
    Located in New York, the institute offers 4 different career paths through their schools of Culinary Arts, Pastry and Baking Arts, Culinary Management, and Hospitality Management. Additionally, you can choose to take workshops, seminars, or come to a variety of lectures. Students also get external placements. Sample tuition for the Culinary Arts stream is $38,500 for the 8-month program.
  • International Culinary Center
    With campuses in New York and California, ICC has a more hands-on range of certifications, including culinary arts, Italian and Spanish culinary experiences, as well as farm-to-table, entrepreneurship and culinary arts immersion programs. Sample tuition for a culinary arts course ranges from $33,900 to $48,750, depending on the intensiveness and duration of the course.
  • Johnson & Wales University
    With JWU, you can choose to study in Providence, North Miami, Denver, Charlotte, or online. The university offers B.S. level studies in Baking & Pastry Arts and Culinary Nutrition, as well as A.S. degrees in Culinary Arts and Baking & Pastry Arts. JWU charges an average of $28,239 per year for undergrads.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

As we’ve mentioned before, there are many paths one can take to become a culinary chef, so there is no one definitive piece of advice on how to get started in the industry. Many experts will tell you, however, that the best way to begin is by taking on an entry-level positions in the kitchen or even client facing jobs, such as busing or serving.

Getting to know the industry and understanding how a restaurant works is essential for any chef, whether you are working at a 5 star hotel or at a local pub. In the long run, you will need to able to supervise, which is best done when you know exactly what your team needs to be able to deliver, how difficult it is, the personality traits you are looking for in new hires, etc.

Networking is as always an important part of making your way in the industry. Just knowing people, however, won’t be enough. They need to know that you are good, have the skills and technique to grow, and have the right attitude for success. That’s an important combination.

Remember that the food industry is competitive; since it’s a service industry, clients expect only the best, and so do employers. If you want to go far in the business, your priority should be to perfect the art of cooking and always offer your best, no matter the job.